LONDON – Britain imposed tougher restrictions Thursday on people and businesses in parts of northeastern England as the nation attempts to stem the spread of COVID-19 before the colder winter months.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock told the House of Commons that the new measures would include a ban on residents socializing with people outside their own households, ordering leisure and entertainment venues to close from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. and restricting bars and restaurants to table service only.
He also promised 2.7 billion pounds ($3.5 billion) to support the National Health Service this winter.
``The battle against coronavirus is not over, and while we strain every sinew to spring free from its clutches, with winter on the horizon we must prepare, bolster our defenses and come together once again against this common foe,'' Hancock said.
The comments came after British Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned that authorities will have to impose tougher measures to combat the spread of COVID-19 and “protect’’ the Christmas holidays. In a piece published in The Sun newspaper, he said that the only way to be certain the country can enjoy the winter holidays “is to be tough now.’’
“So if we can grip it now,'' Johnson said, Britain can ``stop the surge, arrest the spike, stop the second hump of the dromedary, flatten the second hump.”
Over the past three days, opposition lawmakers have criticized Johnson’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis and said his government lacked a cohesive plan to tackle a second wave of the pandemic. A shortage of testing capacity is a particular concern, with people around the country complaining they were unable to book appointments for tests or directed to testing centers far from their homes.
Widespread testing is seen as crucial to controlling the spread of the virus because it allows those who are infected to self-isolate while helping health officials to identify hot spots and to trace people who were potentially exposed.
Dido Harding, who is in charge of the virus testing program, told a parliamentary committee that constraints in the system were due to processing in laboratories.
“We have to restrict the number of people who are taking tests in the testing sites so that there’s no risk of those tests going out of date when they are processed in the labs,'' she said.
Complaints are pouring in from the public. Mechanic Brad Cockburn made a 100-mile (160 kilometer) round trip from Bedale, England, to a testing site in Sunderland only to find there were no staff members or even a tent there. His employer booked him the test when Cockburn said he felt as if he had the flu.
“I took this afternoon off, unpaid, and I won’t be able to work tomorrow now,'' the 28 year-old said. “They’re supposed to put these things in place to get people working again. Now they’ve got all these people congregating here and nobody to test them.”
Daily infection rates recently rose to levels not seen since late May, forcing the British government to impose limits on public gatherings.
Figures released late Wednesday showed 3,991 new confirmed cases during the previous 24 hours, up from 3,105 a day earlier.
Hancock said the government decided to impose tighter restrictions in northeastern England at the request of local officials.
``We agree with the local councils that we must follow the data...and the data says we must act now,'' he said.
Newcastle City Council leader Nick Forbes said the controls are seen as “preventative” measures that will help avoid a full-scale lockdown.
Local leaders are concerned that the rise in infections is starting to affect older people who are more susceptible to the disease, Forbes told the BBC.
“Last week, 60% of the people that were being tested were between the ages of 18 and 30. That is now starting to reach into older age groups as well,'' he said. “We know that when it starts to affect older people, that’s when you start to get the hospitalizations and, sadly, also the mortality, too.''
The number of deaths is still relatively low because most of the new infections have been among people in the 20-40 age range, 40, said Dr. Bharat Pankhania, an infectious disease expert at the University of Exeter.
While younger and stronger individuals are usually more resilient to the effects of COVID-19, the demographic group is now spreading the virus to older people.
“It is only a matter of time before we see them (deaths) in the older age groups,'' Pankhania said. “It is serious.''
Hospital admissions for COVID-19 already have begun to rise. The number of patients being treated for the disease in hospitals in England increased to 894 on Wednesday, up from 472 on Sept. 1, according to the latest government statistics. The number of hospitalized patients on ventilators rose to 107 from 59 in the same period.
Local leaders are also demanding the government increase testing capacity to stave off a second wave of infections.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan called for action to counter “chaos and confusion.” He told London Assembly members that testing problems were “putting lives and livelihoods in jeopardy.''
“We’ve known for months now that come the autumn demand for testing would increase,'' Khan said. “This crunch point should have been foreseen and then avoided. And unless the government massively ramps up testing capacity in London, we’ll be back to where we started: trying to halt the spread of the virus in the dark.''
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